Real-time strategy games have never really gotten along with home game consoles. Despite several valiant attempts at bringing RTSs to consoles, the task of directing dozens, if not hundreds, of on-screen units has always been more manageable with a mouse and keyboard than with a game controller. Recently, Halo Wars made some strides towards making the genre more compatible by stripping down the controls to fit better on an 8-button controller, as did EndWar with its voice-only commands. Sega is taking a different approach with their console RTS, Stormrise, implementing a completely new control system that not only fits on console controllers, but actually requires their unique analog control abilities.
Stormrise features one of the most in-depth and fascinating back-stories ever seen in an RTS. In the near future, humanity has polluted the Earth to the point where it is uninhabitable. In an effort to save the species, a system of underground cryo-stasis chambers are set up. These chambers allow people to sleep for centuries, protecting them from the increasingly hostile environment, but there aren’t enough chambers for everyone, and many are left to fend for themselves. In time, most of the remaining surface dwellers die off, but the ones who survive begin to show signs of mutation, developing psychic abilities that allow them to cope with the harsh environment. These people, now calling themselves the Sai, begin to develop a rudimentary civilization. As this civilization begins to grow, the humans who escaped the last few centuries in their stasis pods finally wake up. They find a world in ruins, but also find the Sai and their new civilization. The two factions welcome one another, and the majority of the Sai are happy to have the returned humans, now known as the Echelon, due to their familiarity with technology. As the two groups integrate, extremist factions form on either side, and tensions begin to flare, bringing this shattered world closer to the brink of war. It’s a rather complex and well thought-out way to create a conflict between two camps (one tech-based, one psi-based, as in so many RTSs) without making either one the “bad guy.”
The game’s clever back-story is told in the instruction manual. Sadly, all the interesting storytelling falls apart once you start the game. Instead of the intriguing story of two neutral armies with opposing agendas fighting for what they believe in, Stormrise immediately devolves into the Echelon good guys versus the cackling, evil Sai. Within the first section of the tutorial level, the dialogue gets so meat-headed and clichéd that you’ll immediately lose interest in the underserved story. This leaves you with only the gameplay, and that gets old even quicker than the narrative.
Stormrise approaches the RTS genre differently than pretty much any strategy game before it by focusing on controlling units individually, from a close up, third-person action perspective. Using the right stick, you can point to any other unit on the game map, and by releasing the stick, “Whip Select” them. From there, you can move your selected unit anywhere on the map, including vertically differentiated spots like rooftops, by pointing to a location and hitting the A button. In the tutorial, this is easily grasped, and at first seems like a quick, fun, innovative way to control units. Once you’re actually in battle, spawning reinforcements and setting up multiple attack fronts, the mechanic essentially falls apart. As the battlefield begins to fill up, selecting a specific unit becomes almost impossible. You’ll spend way too much time flicking the right stick in every conceivable direction in order to gain control of one of your mech units, and once you finally do get a hold of him, your camera angle has changed so many times that you’ll often have no clue as to which direction the battle is taking place. This issue could have been remedied with an on-screen map and an effective and easy-to-use mechanic for grouping units. Instead, Stormrise forces you to push the Back button to access an indecipherable 3D map, and allows you to group only three units together, and due to a completely unpredictable selection tool, it’s extremely difficult to build a group of specific units. As a result, you’ll be stuck with whatever three units happened to be standing nearest each other. While it may have sounded okay on paper, the right analog “Whip Select” is cumbersome, ill-designed, and nearly broken. Of course, selecting units isn’t the only issue with the controls. Once you’ve told a unit where to go, it’s a crapshoot as to whether or not they’ll actually get there. Stormrise’s AI pathfinding is atrocious, and units constantly choose inefficient routes and get stuck on buildings and other environmental elements.
Last-gen visuals don’t help Stormrise out any, either. While your mech units look okay, pretty much everyone else on the map looks small, indistinct, and therefore inconsequential. Likewise, the levels you’ll fight through are grey, dull, dreary and downright boring. To make matters worse, the game is prone to all sorts of visual glitches, like disappearing units, units losing battles without any actual shots being fired, and half-finished animations. Explosions and gunfire have a weak, underpowered look to them, further upping the “who cares” quotient. At least the frame rate, a constant issue with RTSs on consoles, stays pretty solid throughout, meaning you’ll usually get 60 frames of tedious boredom per second.
In the single-player campaign, pretty much every mission has the same structure; capture a node from the enemy, use it as a defensive shield, heavy cannon, resource-gathering refinery, or spawn point, move on to the next node. The omission of base building speeds up the proceedings, and would have actually been a nice touch if the laborious control scheme weren’t so completely at odds with the game’s pace. There are multiplayer modes, and forcing two players to work with the flawed control scheme helps balance things out some, but it doesn’t make them any less frustrating or any more fun.
Stormrise is an example of a good idea gone horribly wrong. It almost feels like Creative Assembly, the developer, became so enamored with the novelty of the Whip Select mechanic that they neglected to even attempt to make the game enjoyable. The core design of the game is so badly flawed, it’s surprising that Sega allowed it to be released in its current state. It’s such a mess, in fact, that you’ll wonder if you’re doing something wrong or missing some key control element, but, alas, there is no good way to play Stormrise. There’s no good reason to, either.